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Opinion Nebraska meatpackers breathe for hours through blood-soaked masks. This can’t keep happening.

A Tyson Foods Inc. facility in Lexington, Neb. (Dan Brouillette/Bloomberg)

Tony Vargas, a Democrat, represents District 7 in the Nebraska state Senate.

Covid-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants across America have been a tragic, vexing element of the pandemic. Up to 8 percent of coronavirus cases in the United States in the first five months of the pandemic could be linked to infections among meatpacking workers, according to a study conducted by researchers from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Public health experts suspect that long hours in cramped, cold conditions, with grossly inadequate provisions for personal safety and social distancing, are why the coronavirus hit meatpacking plants especially hard. Clearly, improving protections against covid-19 at the plants is essential for the good of the workers — and for the nation as a whole.

In Nebraska, where I’m a state senator, meatpacking is a major part of the economy. Coronavirus cases among meatpackers alone accounted for up to 20 percent of the state’s cases over the summer, according to information provided to my office by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Following a surge of cases in Nebraska generally, the share has since dropped to 4 percent. I have been trying since last spring to get the state to improve safeguards in the plants. This week, I am trying again, with legislation that would mandate measures including a six-foot radius of space around each worker, access to clean personal protective equipment and paid sick leave for workers ill with covid-19.

You’d think that such steps would have been taken early in the pandemic, when the connection to meatpacking plants was discovered. But in August, at a hearing of the legislature’s Business and Labor Committee about the meatpacking-covid problem, 34 witnesses testified about disturbing conditions at the plants.

One witness, Christian Muñoz, told the committee about his experience at the Tyson plant in Sioux City, where he and his father, Rogelio, both worked. Rogelio contracted covid-19 at work in April and died five days before Christian’s first child was born. Muñoz said that the company didn’t acknowledge his father’s death, and that he soon left his job because, after working with his father for many years, he couldn’t bear to look over his shoulder and not see him nearby.

Another witness testified that five of her family members who work in packing plants have died of covid-19. Other witnesses who worked in the plants testified that their masks quickly become soiled and are not replaced with clean ones, so they are forced to breathe through blood-soaked paper masks for hours.

In the end, there was no opposition testimony because not a single employer showed up. A bill I had introduced to address these safety issues advanced from committee, but time to debate it ran out in the final days of the session.

This fall, I asked the Nebraska Labor Department about any investigations at meatpacking plants. We learned that, despite a clear and known public health crisis unfolding in Nebraska meatpacking plants, they had not visited any plants between the months of March and August. So far, in Nebraska, health authorities tell me that meatpacking employees account for nearly 7,000 covid-19 cases, 249 hospitalizations and 26 deaths. (The information is not made publicly available.) The spread to family and friends, and to the wider population, is incalculable.

These aren’t just numbers to me. The majority of the district that I represent is Latino, as are the overwhelming majority of meatpacking workers in Nebraska and many other states. I am the youngest son of Peruvian immigrants who worked in factories, on the line, just like these meatpacking workers do. As a child, I saw the physical pain my parents endured from their jobs. I can’t imagine what it would be like now — to also know that your mother and father leave home every day to work in a place where a deadly virus is spreading like wildfire.

The last time I saw my father alive and well was last February, when my parents came to Nebraska to celebrate my daughter’s first birthday. In late March, he and my mother both contracted covid-19; a month later, after spending 29 days on a ventilator in the intensive care unit, he passed away. At this point, hundreds of thousands of American families have experienced similarly tragic losses. What makes our grief even harder to process is that this disaster was largely preventable.

Certainly, the toll on meatpacking workers — and on the communities where they live — can be reduced. One encouraging sign is that meatpackers are considered front-line agricultural workers who will be in the second group of those eligible for coronavirus vaccination, tentatively scheduled to begin later this month. That’s good. These workers who risk their lives to put food on all our tables need and deserve protection from this deadly scourge.

Read more:

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